“Dad, what is this new book you and Henry are writing?” asked my seven-year-old son, Ricky.
“It’s about boundaries and kids,” I (Dr. Townsend) replied.
Ricky thought a moment, then said reflectively, “I like to say boundaries, but I don’t like to hear them.”
Join the rest of the human race, Ricky. All of us like to set boundaries, but we don’t like to hear other people’s boundaries. Ever since the time of Adam and Eve, taking ownership of our lives and accepting responsibility for ourselves is something we have resisted. Your task as a parent is to help your children develop inside them what you have been providing on the outside: responsibility, self-control, and freedom. Setting and maintaining boundaries is not an easy task, but with the right ingredients, it really works.
Several years ago, we coauthored Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. This book sets forth the concept that setting limits helps us better own our lives and, ultimately, helps us love God and others better. The book’s ongoing popularity speaks to the need of so many people who struggle with problems such as irresponsible, manipulative, or controlling relationships, emotional issues, work conflicts, and the like.
Since Boundaries was published, many parents have asked us questions — in the counseling office, in seminars, and on the radio — about how boundaries work in child rearing. Parents are concerned with raising kids who are not only loving, but also responsible. And they want something that will do more than help people heal broken boundaries. They want something to prevent boundary problems, to help build boundaries in children.
The Future Is Now
We often parent in the present without thinking about the future. We usually deal with the problems at hand. Making it through an afternoon without wanting to send our children to an eight-year camp in Alaska seems like a huge accomplishment! But one goal of parenting is to keep an eye on the future. We are raising our children to be responsible adults.
Child rearing requires many different interventions. There are times for helping, for not getting involved, or for being strict. But the real issue is this: Is what you are doing being done on purpose? Or are you doing it from reasons that you do not think about, such as your own personality, childhood, need of the moment, or fears?
When you are helping your children develop their character, you are preparing them for the future. A person’s character largely determines how she will function in life. Whether she does well in love and in work depends on the abilities she possesses inside. And boundaries are effective tools to help you with this critical task.
Most of our problems result from our own character weakness. Where we possess inner strength, we succeed, often in spite of tough circumstances. But where we do not possess inner strength, we either get stuck or fail. If a relationship requires understanding and forgiveness and we do not have that character ability, the relationship will not make it. If a difficult time period in work requires patience and delay of gratification and we do not possess those traits, we will fail. Character is almost everything.
Children Are Not Born with Boundaries
A boundary is a “property line” that defines a person; it defines where one person ends and someone else begins. If we know where a person’s boundaries are, can require responsibility in regard to feelings, behaviors, and attitudes. (Read What Are Healthy Boundaries? to learn more.) We have all seen couples, for example, arguing with each other about “who’s to blame,” each avoiding responsibility for oneself. In a relationship with someone, we can define what we expect of each other, and then we can require each other to take responsibility for our respective part. When we each take ownership for our part of a relationship, the relationship works, and we all accomplish our goals.
A child is no different. A child needs to know where she begins, what she needs to take responsibility for, and what she does not need to take responsibility for. If she knows that the world requires her to take responsibility for her own personhood and life, then she can learn to live up to those requirements and get along well in life.
But if she grows up in a relationship where she is confused about her own boundaries (what she is responsible for) and about others’ boundaries (what they are responsible for), she does not develop the self-control that will enable her to steer through life successfully. She will grow up with confused boundaries that lead to the opposite: trying to control others and being out of control of herself.
The essence of boundaries is self-control, responsibility, freedom, and love. These are the bedrock of strong character. Along with loving and obeying God, what could be a better outcome of parenting than that?
Adapted from Boundaries with Kids by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.